Morton L. Friedman, whose drive and vision as a lawyer, businessman and philanthropist shaped the culture in Sacramento from law and medicine to the arts and retailing, died Wednesday. He was 80.
Friedman had been ill in recent years with progressive supranuclear palsy, a brain disease, his family said.
Few movers and shakers in Sacramento have made as big a mark in as many areas of civic life as Friedman. He was a man of boundless energy and generosity, and his name regularly appeared on lists of the most influential people in the region.
With his wife of 57 years, Marcy, he built a fortune that they tapped freely to benefit the community. Their philanthropy included a $10 million donation that made them a driving force behind a major expansion of the Crocker Art Museum.
Friedman landed in Sacramento with a Stanford law degree in 1957 and within three years started a practice with partner Bill Collard. He made his reputation as a tenacious lawyer who won cases that made headlines and set precedents.
He was the lead attorney for plaintiffs in the 1972 Farrell's disaster, which killed 22 people when a plane crashed into a Freeport Boulevard ice cream parlor. In 1984, he won $41 million for a 6-year-old boy who was paralyzed by a drug overdose at UC Davis Medical Center. He won millions of dollars for patients who sued Sutter Memorial Hospital in a 1979 operating-room sex scandal.
He argued cases that led to changes in state law, including a suit that gave owners of defective cars the right to sue the manufacturers as well as dealers. He filed lawsuits against hospitals that prodded reforms in care procedures. He trained lawyers who became top personal injury litigators.
"He had a really strong sense of right and wrong," said his son Mark. "My dad was someone who operated from a deep moral conviction. He saw himself as an advocate for someone who couldn't speak for himself."
Friedman had a tremendous work ethic. Piles of legal briefs, depositions and other documents littered his office as he personally handled more than 300 cases at a time. Despite his success, he was a modest man who preferred to eat lunch at his desk or at Denny's.
He parlayed his earnings into a bigger fortune as an investor and real estate developer. He was a director and major shareholder of Capitol Bank of Commerce, and he once owned part of Bear Valley ski resort. He bought and refurbished Town & Country Village, which he sold for $32 million in 1999.
His biggest success was Arden Fair. He bought half of the shopping center with business partner Dennis Marks in 1975 and rebuilt it along with adjacent Market Square into one of the nation's top-performing shopping centers.
The improvements elevated the level of shopping locally by luring the first Nordstrom store to Sacramento. Friedman also landed retail giants Barnes & Noble, Virgin Megastores, Trader Joe's and California Cafe.
"None of these people would consider coming to Sacramento," he said in 1999. "We were kind of off the beaten track.
"Finally, we were able to convince Nordstrom to come here. That kind of set the tone and tenor for the community, and I think it really changed the retail structure of our area and we became a city."
Meanwhile, Friedman and his wife were among top donors to charitable and civic causes. Besides leading fundraising for the Crocker expansion, they wrote many checks to Jewish groups, the Sacramento Symphony and programs that encourage literacy, safe neighborhoods and tolerance in schools.
Longtime contributors to Democratic politicians, the Friedmans hosted President Bill Clinton at a 1995 fundraiser at their Carmichael home. They were early supporters of the Capital Unity Center and gave $1 million to kick off fundraising for the project to promote racial and ethnic understanding.
"The community has been very good to us, and we believe very strongly in putting something back," Friedman said in 1994.
Although he counted many friends in high places, Friedman's closest partner in life was his wife, Marcy. They forged a strong bond and a showed a genuine devotion to each other as a power couple in public and a husband and wife at home.
"My mom is somebody whom he respected immensely as well as loved deeply," Mark Friedman said. "His accomplishments are the accomplishments of my parents together because every step of the way, they completed and fulfilled each other."
Morton Lee Friedman was born in 1932 and raised in South Dakota by Russian Jews who emigrated in the early 1900s and settled in the northern Great Plains. He lived with his sister and parents above a general store they ran in Aberdeen, S.D.
A noted track athlete, he won an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan. He transferred to Stanford University, where he earned a business degree and graduated from law school.
He met his wife at Stanford and married in 1955. They had three sons: Mark, a prominent Sacramento developer; Philip, a lawyer who was deputy general counsel for Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign; and Jeff, a pediatric cancer physician and technology venture capitalist.
Friedman was devoted to his Jewish faith and was an outspoken supporter of Israel. He served on the national board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. He was a past president of Mosaic Law Congregation and was fundraising co-chairman for Shalom School, the region's only Jewish day school.
He took a hands-on approach to philanthropy, from washing dishes at fundraisers to personally phoning donors for the Crocker museum.
In Sacramento, he showed up carrying a stack of binders for students while his wife handed out muffins to teachers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, which the couple adopted and helped transform into a California Distinguished School.
"People want to see us participating rather than just throwing money around," he said. "The key to success is involvement."